Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Lennon

  • Plastic Ono Band [Apple, 1970] A
  • Imagine [Apple, 1971] A
  • Mind Games [Apple, 1973] C+
  • Walls and Bridges [Apple, 1974] B-
  • Rock 'n Roll [Apple, 1975] B-
  • Shaved Fish [Apple, 1975] B+
  • The John Lennon Collection [Geffen, 1982] A-
  • Live in New York City [Capitol, 1986] B
  • Menlove Ave. [Capitol, 1986] B+
  • Imagine: John Lennon: Music from the Original Motion Picture [Capitol, 1988] C+
  • Wonsaponatime [Capitol, 1998] A-
  • Acoustic [Capitol, 2004] *
  • Rock 'n' Roll [Capitol, 2004] Choice Cuts

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Plastic Ono Band [Apple, 1970]
Of course the lyrics are often crude psychotherapeutic cliches. That's just the point, because they're also true, and John wants to make clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else. At first the music sounds crude, too, stark and even perfunctory after the Beatles' free harmonies and double guitars. But the real music of the album inheres in the way John's greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically--echoed, filtered, double-tracked, with two vocals sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. Which means that John is such a media artist that even when he's fervently shedding personas and eschewing metaphor he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. A

Imagine [Apple, 1971]
Primal goes pop--personal and useful. The title cut is both a hymn for the Movement and a love song for his wife, celebrating a Yokoism and a Marcusianism simultaneously, and "Gimme Some Truth" unites Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland wordplay as it provides a rationale for "Jealous Guy," which doesn't need one, and "How Do You Sleep?," which may. "Oh Yoko!" is an instant folk song worthy of Rosie & the Originals and "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" an instant folk extravaganza worthy of Phil Spector. "It's So Hard" is a blues. "Crippled Inside," with its "ironic" good-time ricky-tick, is folk-rock in disguise. And the psychotherapeutically lugubrious "How?" is a question mark. A

Mind Games [Apple, 1973]
A step in the right direction, but only a step. It sounds like outtakes from Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, which may not seem so bad but means that Lennon is falling back on ideas that have lost their freshness for him. Still, the single works and I hope he keeps on stepping. Favorite Plastic Ono Band outtake: "One Day (at a Time)." Favorite Imagine outtake: "You Are Here." C+

Walls and Bridges [Apple, 1974]
These songs seem more felt than those on Mind Games, probably because they express personal pain rather than generalized optimism--"Bless You," to Yoko in someone else's arms, is a real leap. But the melodies are received, the accompaniment ordinary, and the singing disoriented. What can it be like for this ex-Beatle to trade harmonies with Elton John (who sings backup on "Surprise, Surprise," just as Lennon does on Elton's new single) in the inescapable knowledge that it's Elton who's doing him the favor? B-

Rock 'n Roll [Apple, 1975]
No doubt mysteries of emotional and rhythmic commitment (soul and groove) determine why this runs out of gas after "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and "Stand by Me." But it's also true that covering Gene Vincent and Ben E. King is considerably less perilous than covering Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, whose songs follow. Which may be why "Ya Ya" (Lee Dorsey) and "Just Because" (Lloyd Price) work. Too bad he didn't go for more esoterica--this could have been another Moondog Matinee. B-

Shaved Fish [Apple, 1975]
Eleven shots in the dark from the weirdest major rock and roller of the early '70s. All the hits are here, many of them misses, with the number-one single as out of place as "Happy Xmas" and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World." Not just because it's bad, either--in retrospect, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and "Power to the People" sound equally bald, equally stupid. Not counting the two available on must-own albums, the only great cuts are "Instant Karma" (Lennon's best political song) and "#9 Dream" (catchier nonsense pop than McCartney's ever managed). So I don't play it much. But I'm sure glad it's on the shelf. B+

The John Lennon Collection [Geffen, 1982]
I grant that it's superfluous--basically an Apple best-of plus John's songs from Double Fantasy. It goes on my A shelf because John was John, not just half of John & Yoko. Also because it omits the half-cocked "Cold Turkey" and ragtag "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" from the official Apple best-of and doesn't medley "Give Peace a Chance." A-

Live in New York City [Capitol, 1986]
Just by putting his all into such unsung great songs as "Well, Well, Well" and "It's So Hard," the great singer comes a lot closer to justifying this ad hoc document than Jagger did with Ya-Ya's or Daltrey did with Leeds. The alternate "Instant Karma" and "Cold Turkey" and "Mother" are also welcome. But his accidental romance with Elephant's Memory never did him any good musically. And for all his encouragement Yoko wasn't yet a rock-and-roller, so "Hound Dog" remains a concept. B

Menlove Ave. [Capitol, 1986]
The late-night session-band workups of songs later embalmed on Walls and Bridges are startlingly stark and clear, making side two the finest music of the hiatus between Imagine and Double Fantasy, whose precisely felt studio-rock they prefigure. Phil Spector produced the commercial versions. He also produced Rock 'n' Roll, source of the outtakes on side one, which were rejected because they're even stiffer than the intakes. John never could figure out what to do about loving Rosie & the Originals. And Phil wasn't the guy to tell him. B+

Imagine: John Lennon: Music from the Original Motion Picture [Capitol, 1988]
Nothing wrong with the music, though you can do without the bait--"Imagine" work tape, carefully hoarded new song work tape. But the useless configuration, foreshortening the Yokoless first half of his career and romanticizing the de-Beatled second, wouldn't exist without the tireless promotional efforts of Albert Goldman. C+

Wonsaponatime [Capitol, 1998]
As someone who scoffs at the outtake collections of known improvisers, I doubt I'll be delving into the box too often, although the live stuff is worth hearing. But not only does this one-disc distillation spare borderline obsessives financial anxiety, it proves Lennon the great singer he's rarely remembered as. Whether the alternate rearrangements are drastic (Cheap Trick on "I'm Losing You," strings on "Grow Old With Me") or subtle (pianoless "God," single-tracked "Oh My Love"), every song is renewed by a vocal commitment that shades the canonical take, usually toward sweetness or rage. There's new material, too: blues cover, Platters cover, pledge of love, and the priceless Dylan answer song "Serve Yourself." Lennon wasn't above dabbling in religion. But he never got so down he mistook God for more than a concept by which he measured his pain. A-

Acoustic [Capitol, 2004]
Nirvana unplugged it ain't, and a precious resource he remains ("God," "What You Got"). *

Rock 'n' Roll [Capitol, 2004]
"My Baby Left Me," "Angel Baby" Choice Cuts

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